Writing Music When You Don’t Feel Like It

keyboard and headphones
The good ol' workstation keyboard.

Writing music when you don’t feel like it can be a difficult task. But it’s important to realize that writing music doesn’t have to be “all feels, all the time”. In fact, if it is “all feels all the time“ then I find it to be quite unproductive. Not that music itself is about productivity at its core… it truly is an extension of human emotions. But we musicians tend to portray the art of writing music as a consistently invigorating process, fueled by passion. The reality is: listening to (and practicing) the same track over and over and over can get tiring. Experimenting with different arrangements, shifting melodies, changing chords, trying to make everything fit and work together can be tiring. Overall it’s enjoyable, but you have to put hard work into finishing a respectable length of music.

There will be times where you don’t feel like working on a specific song anymore. It doesn’t have the initial excitement that it gave you when you first thought it up. In fact, this has happened to me several times. The result of it is that I was left with a bunch of scraps of unfinished songs because I lost interest and kept moving on to the next thing. But at least now that I have identified the problem, I can do something about it. And that is exactly what I have been doing.


Synth workstation for writing music
The good ol’ Korg Triton workstation keyboard. Pretty much my powerhouse for writing music.

The Solution? Writing Music with a New Mindset

There is no “one size fits all” solution to this problem, but I can tell you what has helped me.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time Listening

I think a big part of what tires me out is that I listen to the partially-completed product way too much. It’s easier (and more fun) to press play again than it is to work on it some more. I mean, technically you have to listen to it in order to work on it. But there’s a difference between listening to it critically and just listening back for enjoyment. The more you do the latter, the quicker it will wear out on your ears. So, definitely listen to it, but  you have to take action. Once you identify a problem, do something about it. Notice a bad transition? Do something to change it right away, then move on to something else. If you can’t find an immediate solution, move on to something else and come back to it later.

I would also like to mention that I’m talking strictly about the writing phase. If you’re still in love with the music by the time it’s 100% complete, then by all means listen to it as much as you want.

Find What’s Missing

Over time my ear has only gotten better. Like anything, applying yourself and just doing it will make you better at it. Learning music theory and notation has only improved my ability (before learning music theory, I was slightly concerned that it would impair my ability to feel the music. But that was a silly thought). With a stronger theory background, I can listen to a collection of my songs and see where I need to go. I can analyze things that I tend to repeat in my writing style, and figure out where I haven’t yet explored. And honestly, you don’t have to know the technical terms, just try to find the patterns.

For the longest time I’ve focused on constructing overly perfected melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions. Now I can focus on the bigger picture: song structure. The “verse, chorus, bridge” type of deal. What is the overall feel of the song? How do the different parts contrast or add to each other? What is the dynamic flow and variety of the music like?

Don’t Be Afraid to Adjust, or Even Scrap Something

In my experience, falling in love with a specific arrangement has only impeded my process. You have to go with your gut. Even if it’s just slightly off, there could be something better out there. Of coarse, the extreme opposite would be to keep changing it and never be satisfied with anything. I guess there’s a balance. It’s good to know what you’re looking for, and what your idea of a “good song” is.

Through it all, there is one, often overlooked characteristic that is of utmost importance. And that is the arrangement of a song. A lot of people put emphasis on the mixing/producing side of music. While mixing is a very important aspect, the “mixing” really starts with the arrangement of the song itself. If you are having a hard time mixing something to sound the way you want it, try changing the octave, the expression, or even shift the part to a new instrument. A keyboard/synth is the most versatile instrument for this purpose. You can change from a keyboard, to an organ, to a synth pad on the fly. You can easily shift octaves and tone to make room for another instrument.

These are things I’m learning myself as I am revitalizing my old “scraps”. The funny thing is that as I am doing so, I’m writing new songs. And with this new perspective, the new songs come out to completion much faster. It’s good, fun, and exciting work. But it is work.

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